Emerging from Tower Hill Station
into a whiff of traffic fumes with a hint of riverside aroma, which penetrate the chill of this bright day; I’m faced with a truncated fragment of the ancient City Wall
, rising to over 10 metres: a curtain of ragstone and red tile- strata of many centuries; almost half its height surviving from Roman times. This wall and its defensive moat (known later as the Citie’s Ditch
), was originally built around 200AD. A statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan
stands proudly in front of this wall and gestures with his right forefinger (see photo below: an 18th century bronze, allegedly discovered in a scrap yard in Southampton by Reverend T B ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of the Toc H charity
). His pointing finger leads the eye
towards the raised walkway through to Tower Hill Gardens
on the other side of the wall.
The wall shades a segment of the low grassy rise of Tower Hill. Play equipment is set into patchy grass. I set up to draw the view from here across to the walls and turrets of the Tower of London
. But the sun, strong to the south, flickering and dazzling through the mass of hanging plane twiggery, turns the ancient ramparts to a grey- violet silhouette and I have to peer hard to make out its many windows and battlements. And over to the west, the Shard
is a soaring blade of pure glassy blue. The relentless flow of traffic rumbles the dual carriageway road between, and pulls to a halt at the lights at the junction here. The squeal of brakes a persistent theme.
The garden is busy with tourists. A family sit with a picnic while young daughter whooshes down the slide and then scrambles back up the earthy slope to go again.
Tower Hill is less a hill and more a gentle rise up from the banks of the Thames
, but elevated enough to offer commanding upstream and downstream views, which made this
an ideal defensive location (there is talk and some evidence for an early Celtic fortress here).
And a good strategic position just within the eastern walls of Roman Londinium
After the decline of Roman rule, followed by 400 year of neglect and Viking
occupation, London’s walls were restored by Alfred the Great
in the 890s. The Tower of London was built by the Normans
soon after their conquest of Britain in 1066. Surrounded by a moat and high walls, the White Tower
was the castle’s keep, built to be impregnable and commanding. It was a powerful symbol of the power of the new King William
and was used as a royal residence. Over succeeding centuries its function changed variously to a prison, an armoury, a treasury, a private zoo for exotic animals (including lions), to house the Royal Mint
, as a public records office and to guard the Crown Jewels
The area around it became known as the ‘Tower Liberties’
, an area that could not be built on, defined by the distance an arrow could be fired from the Tower. So Tower Hill remained undeveloped. A 20 metre wide stretch of water, known as the Citie’s Ditch
, ran through here, at the foot of the Wall (where the children’s playground now stands
). It emptied through
a channel into the Tower’s moat. At that point, where now run buses and articulated lorries, was once where tracks converged from the farms and villages outside the eastern city walls, to squeeze through a postern gate
. Over the centuries, despite attempts to dredge and clear, it grew foul and choked with rubbish and waste. By 1700 the Citie’s Ditch had been filled in.
The screech of a child pierces through the traffic noise: the sliding girl isn’t happy about being wrenched away from her slide. Then a loud slapping noise! I look across: the mother is crashing the soles of her daughter’s shoes together to get rid of the accumulated mud.
I’m aware of a dark haired young woman wearing a light brown beret wandering around the shrubs and amongst the play equipment, searching the ground, picking things up and dropping them into her bag. After a while she goes to sit on the roundabout, sets it gently turning and films a dizzy 360 degree view of the world on her phone: Roman wall / trees / slide / scaffolded office block / person drawing / more trees / lorry / Tower of London / bus stop / Roman wall again / slide again etc…
Drawing finished (see image at top
), I hastily pack my things. The woman has gone and I’m
curious about what she was picking up. I go over and very quickly find some coins. I pick them up: one of the old large 5p (shilling sized
) coins, smeared in mud. And there’s a shiny 2p coin. And then I see more. And more!
Lots of different coins all around: some bright and new on the surface, and some hidden, just circular edges poking out of the earth. I prise up some more: old halfpenny pieces. I have a handful now and think about putting them in my pocket, but then start to wonder why coins have been thrown here apparently over a long period. Perhaps they’re offerings. Or wishes. I can’t take away people’s wishes!
I throw them back on the ground and push them in with my heel (a mystery! Despite research, I haven’t been able to find any reference to a practice of coins being thrown here
I wander the 2 minutes across to Trinity Square. A steaming americano bought from the Tower Hill Tram
coffee stand to warm me up. Into this 1¼ acre space of lawn; winter bare trees and evergreen shrubs around the edge. I follow the perimeter path around to the site of Tower Hill Scaffold
. From 1381 public executions were carried on this raised patch of rough ground. A permanent site was established a century later. Today marked out by cobbles and chains (see photo below
), with plaques to commemorate those put to death on this poignant spot.
I set up to lay this historic spot across the foreground of my drawing.
Executions were a popular but grisly spectator ‘sport’, with viewing stands, raucous crowds, street entertainers and vendors. Over 350 years, at least 125 prisoners, political and criminal, lost their heads here, most of them from the aristocratic classes, including Sir Thomas More
(see ‘Sticks in the Smoke 35’ Ropers Garden
) and Thomas Cromwell
. In 1747 Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat
, was the last beheading to take place in Britain.
Apart from the carnival atmosphere of the public executions, Tower Hill had been a neglected piece of ground until, by the 18th century, local residents were getting annoyed at the dumping of rubbish, unlicensed quarrying, attacks by footpads and anti- social behaviour. Parliamentary Acts were passed authorising the creation of Trinity Square
and surrounding streets. The gardens were laid out in 1795, overlooked by the neoclassical home of Trinity House
(the charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers)
, designed by Samuel Wyatt
(innovative architect of lighthouses and industrial mills
). He set out the gardens in the form of an oval, with a surrounding path, much as they are today. Its use was governed by strict bylaws, limited to permit holders and residents of the square. Other grand buildings around the square include the Port of London Authority Building
, built in 1922 (by Sir Edwin Cooper
) with its impressive classical frontage.
The maritime character of the square’s occupants made this a fitting location for memorials to the seamen of the Merchant Navy
and fishing fleets lost in 20th Century wars. A large, classical temple, designed in the 20s by Sir Edwin Lutyens
, bronze plaques engraved with the names of the 12,210 lost in the First World War
, sits solid over my sketchbook page (see drawing at bottom
). And the 8ft walls of a sunken garden behind me (see photo left
), designed by Sir Edward Maufe
, are set with bronze plaques to remember the 23,765 lost in the oceans during the Second World War
, punctuated by 7 tall stone reliefs of allegorical figures representing the seven seas, by sculptor Charles Wheeler
. The most recent addition at the east corner of the gardens, is a round memorial set at a keeling tilt, engraved with: ‘In Memory of those Merchant Seafarers Who Gave Their Lives to Secure the Freedom of the Falkland Islands in 1981’.
With these sombre memorials and the Scaffold site, this place is definitely ‘park as Memento Mori’.
Smoke billows from one of the memorial temple’s porticos: a workman leans on its sill, puffing on an e- cigarette. As the light fades fast, the darkened pillars and turret turn into the superstructure of a great ship, steaming towards the sunset. I abandon painting and try to commit the changing colours to memory as the pinnacle roofs of Tower Bridge in the background catch the last russet rays of sun. And two vapour trails scratch a silver blue cross into the pink blush of the sky.